Hidden Hometown Heroes: The Santa Claus of Sanford

by Crissy Neville | Photography by Diana Matthews

On face value, Jim Annis of Sanford seems the victor. He who dies with the most toys wins. The home workshop teeming with wooden toys is proof positive. Hundreds of trucks, cars, airplanes, trains, dolls, pull toys, and piggy banks seal the deal. 

Painted and posed, the toys sit as though trophies of the title, medals of the matchup to which, upon inquiry, you find there was never really a match. That’s because not only does Annis not collect the toys, he makes them; he doesn’t keep the toys, he gifts them, to young children across Lee County and even the state who are the real winners in one man’s quest to make toys and spread Christmas cheer. To see a child smile is his reward. 

What of that most toy slogan? Annis is, well, the antithesis of such bumper-sticker banter. 

“I was from a poor family,” Annis said. “There were seven of us, and even though my dad worked, he never made much money. We never really had toys at Christmas. I like to make toys for the kids who might not have much of a Christmas. I don’t like to see kids go without; I want them to have a good Christmas.” 

At age 80, Annis has been crafting toys and spreading joy for over 50 years. Many call him the Santa Claus of Sanford, but he gets gifts, too, he said, in the way of smiles and hugs, laughter and love — intangibles as near and dear to his heart as the toys are to the kids. Annis sat down with OutreachNC Magazine’sCrissy Neville in his backyard workshop recently to share tales of and his talent for toymaking, teaching by example that it is better to give than to receive.

Crissy Neville: Mr. Annis, you are a very gifted woodworker.
How did you get started?

Jim Annis: I have always been good with my hands, but was not very good at school. I have a hearing problem, but my family couldn’t afford hearing aids for me, so I struggled. In the ninth grade, my principal called me into his office and said to me, Jim, you need a trade you can use when you get out of high school. I took machine shop, woodworking, and drafting, learning how to run those machines. I took so many of those classes and not enough of the core ones that I almost did not graduate, but two weeks before the ceremony, he told me I would get a signed diploma. 

You see, God gave me gifts in my hands for crafting and also in my feet for dancing. 

CN: I see signs here in your workshop for “Mr. Jim’s Dance Place” and many pictures of young dancers. So, you are a dancer, too?

JA: Yes, I’ve been dancing all my life! I built this room onto my workshop when my first wife, Margaret, was still alive. We had a dance studio here from 1986 to 2001. I taught high schoolers clogging lessons, something I picked up from watching cloggers at the North Carolina State Fair. I love to clog and loved teaching young people. They won many competitions at the State Fair in those years. I compete as a solo performer myself and have placed many times, too. I remarried in 2001, and my wife Elba and I square dance in Angier once a week and go to the senior enrichment center for Saturday night dances. I taught dance classes at the center in past years — the two-step, waltz, line and square dancing, swing, you name it. 

CN: You are no longer teaching dance classes, but I see you are still making toys. Have you always been a toymaker?

JA: Well, yes, but I also made all kinds of other things from wood, too. I made camping trays, yard decorations, shelves, birdhouses, Santa Clause figures, outdoor chairs, even furniture, but it was just a hobby. I mean, I sold some things here and there, but my real job was as a machinist at the Coty plant in Sanford, where I worked 29 years. But I loved making smaller things from wood, so I started making toys for the kids at Christmastime for fun, and it just stuck. 

I love to see the kids smile and to make them happy. I never had any children of my own, so these kids I give toys to, and the young dancers I taught lessons to, I call them all my kids. They all touch my heart.

CN: That does make you like Santa Claus! How do you decide which children get toys? 

JA: Some people around here do call me Santa, and I do put on a Santa hat when I take my toys down to the Salvation Army of Lee County’s JOY program at the National Guard Armory each year. JOY stands for Joy for Others at Yuletide. I have been working with them since about 1977 and give away about 200-250 toys each year. People fill out applications, those that need assistance, and qualifying families come in at the right time to get donated food, clothing, toys, and even bicycles. I bring all my handmade toys and let each child pick one thing they want. I lead the boy or girl by the hand if they will let me, and say, hey sweetie, let’s pick out a toy. They are usually toddlers up to about age 5 or 6 years old.

CN: If you make 200 to 250 toys, it must take a long time! Tell me about the process. Do you have any help?

JA: I usually make sets of the same toys together, like five or six trucks or cars, for example, and that takes about two days. 

I use patterns I draw myself and trace them onto wood, usually 2x4s or 2x6s of scrap pine or oak planks that were left over from a construction job site or donated from someone in the community. I have torn down a barn or two to get the lumber. 

Next, I use a band saw and cut out the pattern, and I come behind with a sander. Then I have to figure out where the wheels go, if it is a rolling toy. Those are always a favorite among the kids, especially the dog and cricket pull-along kind with moveable legs. My favorite is this one (pointing) that I call the “granddaddy of them all.” It’s a car transporter that holds five cars and is a doozie for the kids to put back together. I might add other things like windows, and for that, I use a drill press. 

Finally, I paint or shellac the wood, or do both. I have had youth groups from a local church help paint and men’s groups run the machinery, but mostly I do all the work myself. It does take all year to get ready for Christmas, and I have seen my share of Christmases, but like I tell Elba, I guess I’ll keep at it until my toes turn up (chuckling). 

CN: You have done a lot of other volunteer work, I understand. Have you carried toys to other places and worked with other groups?

JA: Yes. I like working with veterans and went to the Veterans Administration Hospital in Fayetteville for a year straight. I took toys and let them paint, and whatever they painted, I let them keep. That was a great time. 

A new thing I have started is called “The Ultimate Sacrifice,” which aims to honor families who have lost a loved one in the military. I write letters to the families of fallen soldiers and frame those and add a miniature American flag or a red, white and blue toy vehicle. I am very grateful for their sacrifice and service and want to show it.

I have been going 16 years straight up to the North Carolina Jaycee Burn Center in Chapel Hill with the local firefighters. They collect toys during the year, and I go with them and take my toys to give out. I like helping with their summer camp, on Red Cross disaster relief missions and with Habitat for Humanity, too. And, I have to ring the bell for the Salvation Army at Christmastime, too. I can’t miss that.

CN: With so much sharing and giving, I am sure you have special memories to share. 

JA: Each one is a special memory. One Christmas, a family came into the Salvation Army to pick up their holiday packages, and they had their little girl with them. She was to get a toy, too, but she could barely walk. So, I picked her up, and I took her over to the toy table. She pointed to the wooden dolls and said, “Me? Me have doll?” And I said yes, sweetie, you can have a doll. You can have anyone you want. It makes my heart full every time.